Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Point of view, in general

NOTE: This is a larger issue/technique than one post. Look for more on point of view in the weeks to come :)
The Problem:
The first story I wrote, when I started writing seriously, was told primarily from the point of view of the young protagonist in third person limited. As he found things out, we found things out. Simple, straightforward storytelling, right?

Not so much.

One of the hardest tasks of a writer is staying in one person's head. Only one person's. The characters we meet/create often have so much to say, so many comments to make on the action, they all want their chance at the microphone.

Yet, if you give each of them equal time, the story becomes muddied. Just whose story is this, anyway? Who am I supposed to care about more? Why him/her and not this other guy?

When you try to tell too many points of view, a phenomenon known as "head-hopping" occurs. This is where you bounce the reader's focus back and forth between two (or more!) characters without regard as to what's really important.

Take that first, and so far, unpublished, novel I wrote. The story's going along for nearly forty pages in the protagonist's point of view when, bam! There's a paragraph where you hear the inside thoughts and feelings of the person he's talking to and then, bam! Back to the protagonist's point of view for another three pages before, bam!

Classic early writer inabilility to turn to a character and say, "Stop it. Not your turn. Don't care what you think right now. Stop thinking so loudly."

Some solutions:
There are ways to give that other character the stage for a bit, but having them interrupt the main storyteller doesn't work.

Making a point of view shift at the chapter break is best. Consider alternating from one person to another as the story progresses. Romance novels do this all the time where you have two protagonists  one male, one female, and you need to hear from both sides in order for the reader to care about both of them. (edited to add: Didn't mean to be so stereotypical. That's what I get for writing early in the morning before my morning cup of hot cocoa! Of course the protagonists in a romance don't have to be one of each gender!)

Double spaces in the middle of a chapter also work to separate points of view, but be careful here. You can't double-space, write a paragraph from the other person's viewpoint and then double-space and bounce back. That's just head-hopping with spaces.

If you truly need to switch within a chapter, make the break clear and stick with it for a while. The stories I enjoy most are those who give equal pages to the separate points of view. Or close to equal. The hero has X number of pages, the villain has the same number of pages so we know him (or her!) just as well.


1. Go through your manuscript and look for the head-hopping. Create a secondary file for anyone other than your main storyteller and dump all those thoughts there. You might be surprised to discover you have a companion story developing.

(Anne McCaffery did that with her Pern series. The first three Dragonrider books are told from the point of view of the riders. The next three books, the Harper Hall of Pern books, retell many of the same events at the start, but from the harpers' points of view.)

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